DIR: Woody Allen
CAST: Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson,
Ed Begley, Jr, Henry Cavill
It’s perhaps no surprise, given both his deeply uninspired recent form and the fact that this film is largely based on a screenplay that Allen wrote, and stuck in a drawer, more than 30 years ago that Whatever Works is largely bland, banal, unfunny and generally crushingly mediocre. What is more of a surprise is that in amongst the endless mediocrity is one performance, from Evan Rachel Wood, that lifts the whole film, making it, if far from great, Allen’s best for a while.
Whatever Works is so typical of Woody Allen that it is very nearly self parodying. The lead character, Boris Yelnikoff (David) is, as ever, Woody Allen (and, surprise surprise, that’s exactly how David plays him). Yelnikoff is a misanthropic physicist who regards life as largely being a desolate wasteland of pain and misery and regards himself as a genius and everyone else as “Microbes”. One night 21 year old runaway Melody (Wood) turns up on his doorstep and he lets her in ‘for two minutes’ so she can have some food. Despite the fact that they are complete opposites (she’s so dim that when Boris says he got his limp playing for the Yankees she takes him at his word) two minutes becomes several months, and they get to be quite close. Eventually Melody tells Boris that she’s falling for him, and they get married. Thereafter the film becomes something of a farce, as Melody’s eccentric parents (Clarkson and Begley) turn up looking for her.
Allen’s ongoing interest in stories about pretty young women falling for late middle aged intellectuals is becoming both rather icky and rather boring, to say nothing of, in this case, risibly unconvincing. Boris is so totally misanthropic, so unbelievably rude, so dismissive of everyone and everything that it’s impossible to believe in anyone giving him the time of day, let alone this pretty, sweet young woman. It’s not that David plays him badly, more that the role is so unpalatable that nobody could have made it work.
In support there is decent work from the reliably amusing Ed Begley, Jr as Melody’s father and from Patricia Clarkson, well cast as her Mother, who arrives in New York and in a week goes from uptight southern religious type to bohemian, sexually insatiable, artist. Faring less well is the ill defined cast of Boris’ friends (including Spinal Tap’s Michael McKean) and British actor Henry Cavill, playing British actor Randy. Honestly, Randy. I’m British, I’ve lived in Britain my whole life, I’ve met quite a lot of British people, want to know how many are called Randy? None, it’s just not a name you hear here, and it really sits uneasily with the character, to the point that it’s hard to take him seriously.
The whole film is stolen, and energised, by Evan Rachel Wood. She’s clearly very talented, okay the accent is kind of hokey, but like the rest of her performance it’s charming, and a lot of fun. Melody is the one truly likable character in the film, the only one who doesn’t seem overwhelmingly selfish. Wood plays dumb beautifully, making Melody a little slow off the mark, but not completely unbelievably idiotic, lacking more perhaps in education than IQ. What’s really engaging though is just her energy level here, she’s always just got that extra little spark about her. Allen sometimes uses her as set decoration (she spends much of her screentime in tight tops and short shorts), but she always transcends both that choice and the not especially amusing screenplay.
The problem with Allen’s recent films is that he seems to have run short of things to say, that’s true here too. There’s a clanging criticism of religion, but everything is done in such broad strokes, and all the characters besides Boris change so much, so fast, with so little reason, that it feels very unconvincing. The more pressing problem is that it’s just not funny. Boris is too readily hateable to be very amusing, and Allen’s one liners have largely lost their spark. That Whatever Works isn’t awful makes it a partial return to form for Woody Allen, but don’t go in expecting Manhattan, or Zelig.